In 1982, Jim Henson broke his own mold of a “maker of children’s TV shows” by making a fantasy film, and not just any fantasy film. This one had its own philosophy and mysticism, but no familiar landmarks or historical set pieces, or even normal humans in it. I grew up on the Dark Crystal, and I love it to this day (I love Labyrinth more, but that’s beside the point), and yet I can see why some people are hesitant around it. It is a scary, strange movie and I imagine to anyone that saw it way back in ’82 probably wondered what they were looking at, but that’s the price of being a visionary filmmaker. Henson had to convince other people to see the same vision, and that isn’t easy. Any artist that sticks to the same path long enough digs himself into a rut. Now, over thirty years later, the Jim Henson Company searched the globe for a writer that could write a new chapter into the Dark Crystal’s mythos and maybe just make it a little bit richer. They had thirty years of fans. A website explaining every possible facet of the Crystal’s world of Thra. Five hundred entries. That meant five hundred dreamers. This was the result.
They should have kept looking.
The Gelfling girl Naia lives in the Sog Swamp, and she’s the daughter of the tribal leader. Before you can say “princess looking for adventure,” a soldier from the distant Vapra tribe says that her brother, Gurjin, left his post at the Castle of the Crystal and now the Skesis are branding him a traitor. If he doesn’t show up for trial, then someone from his family must defend him instead. Naia and her father volunteer, but her dad gets injured by a rampant swamp beast barely a day’s journey out of the village. Oh dear, looks like Naia is on her own (except for her pet flying/swimming eel with fur. It must be a replacement for Fizzgig from the movie. It barely gets mentioned in the book so this is the last you’ll hear of it). She travels to another Gelfling village in the grasslands where she meets a songwriter named Kylan. He’s kind of a wimp, but he joins up anyway so he can level up into a full-fledged bard, I mean…no I mean bard. Who am I kidding? This is a Dungeons and Dragons adventure set on Thra. The two make it into the Dark Wood to follow the Black River (had some trouble with the names, didn’t we?), but Kylan is scared because of “the Hunter” lives there. It’s a dangerous beast that can be easily defeated by the hero in his songs. The Hunter killed Kylan’s parents, and it lives close to the Castle. He writes the songs as catharsis I guess.
I have to stop the plot synopsis right there because I can hear everyone out there guessing what happens next. “The Hunter is a Skesis, or one of those crab things the Skesis use as soldiers, and either way it’s looking for Gelflings to take back to the Castle to turn into slaves.” If you made that prediction then you are absolutely right. The Hunter is a Skesis and he’s “recruiting” new slaves. This is the book’s first serious problem. Anyone that’s seen the movie knows all of the plot twists. We can see them coming from a mile away, but Lee still wants us to be surprised. He wants us to say “Wait, you’re telling me that the Skesis, those scary mutant vulture things that rule the world with an iron fist are evil?! The devil you say!” What he doesn’t realize is that nine out of ten people that read this book are Dark Crystal fans. We know the story. We know the lore. We know who’s who and what’s what. Hell the book is even paced like the movie, and it either makes the story predictable or it creates plot holes. Best example: Naia is a girl Gelfling, which means she has butterfly wings that let her glide or “parachute” to safety. Problem is that she doesn’t use them until the three-quarters mark in the book. That was about the same time Kira used them in the movie. What a coincidence! The rest of the time they’re folded up on her back and she pretends they’re not there. Why was she so scared of heights? Did you forget that YOU HAVE WINGS?
So in the Dark Forest they find a big scary tree. Naia wants to ease it’s pain because…reasons, so she dream-fasts with it. I don’t get it. This releases the one and only Mystic in the book, urVa, who basically pats Naia and Kylan on the head in gratitude, shows them what a bow and arrow are, and points them towards the Castle. He’s done his duty. Time to move on, and time for me to go over more problems.
Major problem number two: dream-fasting is the answer to everything in this book. I got sick of it. When Jen and Kira dream-fasted in the movie it happened once by accident. One time. All it showed was a random slideshow of memories. They were plot-specific memories but it was still random and brief, because Henson knew that it would be a clumsy story-telling device to constantly have the characters close their eyes, hold hands, and go down psychic memory lane. Lee didn’t understand that. Naia dream-fasts with every damn thing she comes in contact with: other Gelflings, animals, and even a damn tree! How do you share consciousness with a tree? Don’t tell me that it’s some kind of deep, spiritual meaning with a living thing. It’s a tree. By that line of logic when she fell in the swamp-water she should have had eight million dream-fasts with all the algae and bug larva. There’s a pleasant thought. Do you know what she tells the tree? That it’s not its fault that the forest is so scary, or the Crystal cracked or whatever the hell happened. I don’t know. Again, I reiterate, it’s a tree. How are you going to pat it on the shoulder and say “There, there?” Trees don’t have shoulders! I feel dumber every time I have to think about that chapter. By the end of the book Lee would just throw the words dream-fast in like three to four times a page as if to say “This is what Gelflings do!” It’s the only form a communication these people have, like they can’t talk to each other, or write stuff down. But no, that’s the Gelfling solution for everything. Hold hands and give each other psychic flashbacks instead of actively doing stuff or actually solve the problem at hand. I wanted to shout, “I will pay somebody to have an original idea that doesn’t involve dream-fasting.”
So Naia and Kylan make it to the Castle, or rather Naia does because Kylan chickens out at the front gates. She finds the Vapra soldier that gave her the quest in the first place just in time for the Skesis to capture her and make her into a slave using the evil Crystal light (again, a plot point that any movie fan would know), and Naia finds Gurjin in a prison cell. Gurjing knows the truth that every single reader already guessed ages ago, and they have to escape. Now the Hunter Skesis is after them. Naia escapes when Gurjin sacrifices his life for her so she can warn the Gelfling tribes. Fortunately, Kylan had a land-strider (one of those long-legged rabbit things) parked out back so they can get out of Dodge. Then Naia wakes up in a bed in the closest Gelfling village with a severe case of Sequel Bait because she “still has a long way to go.” Well she’s going to be making it without me, because I have a long list to complain about.
The third problem is the writing style. Lee wants to picture the gran beauty, energy and mysticism of Thra, but he can’t because he has to stop and focus on every tiny detail in front of Naia’s feet. It’s distracting and much too often inane. Paragraph after paragraph drag on by with intricate nuances and minutiae about Naia’s feelings, or what she’s seeing, hearing, or whatever, and then suddenly someone wanders in with the plot. Something keeps happening when no one is looking. I get the feeling if I went on a nature hike with Lee, he’d stop every few feet to stare at a pebble or a flower, and meanwhile he doesn’t notice that he’s walking by the Grand Canyon.
Now that I think about it, he barely mentions the Dark Crystal itself. It’s kind of crucial to the plot. Hell, it’s the title of the movie! That’s kind of a clue.
Problem number four: nobody has any personality. Naia and Kylan, the two lead characters, are almost complete blank slates except that Naia loves her brother, and she’s good at throwing a bola. Kylan reads a lot, and he’s not good with a bola. Do you know how many times these traits show up in the book? Once. Naia throws a bola to catch some dinner on the plains, while Kylan has a guidebook that says it’s safe to eat (moot point: Naia already roasted it. Kind of ironic that a writer would diminish the need for literacy, isn’t it?). Now it’s possible to argue that Jen and Kira were kind of bland, but it’s easy to rebuke that just by watching the movie. Jen is a sheltered youth that is afraid of the big wide world, but he quickly overcomes that with his love for his adoptive father’s last wish. Kira is sheltered too, but she can’t believe it when she finally meets another Gelfling and, once her village is destroyed, she takes the journey because she has nowhere else to go, but because she figures out that that Crystal Shard that Jen’s carrying must be the only way to make it right. Here Naia and Kylan are just talking heads that are taking this quest because everybody else called in sick. And there’s something about Naia’s brother, generic frightened voice #3, but like I said before, we all saw it coming.
Problem number five, and this is the crucial one: the book doesn’t break new ground with the Dark Crystal lore. Lee went so far as to make his work feel like the movie that he practically copied it scene by scene. Sure there are some minor variations here and there (like the lack of Aughra, who would have made this interesting), but he seems to have gotten the surface details of the story right, but not the heart. The Dark Crystal had a sense of depth to it, a sense of mysticism, wonder, and urgency to it. I still remember the Mystics marching to the Castle as a weird but poignant way to show the march of time. Lee moves his story at a lackadaisical pace and he often gets distracted. Henson wrote this great message of duality and balance, both between the Skesis and the Mystics and Jen and Kira. His movie also hinted that the Gelflings used to be an advanced civilization at one time, even if they were separate tribes. But to Lee, they never seemed to get past mud and thatch-roofed huts. You’re telling me that in a thousand years these people made a stone temple with hieroglyphics but they never once invented the bow and arrow? Naia carries her brother’s knife through the whole story. That implies there was a Gelfling blacksmith and iron-miner somewhere. How come we never see them? By the way, like so many other “plot points,” she only uses it once for a lame reason. She throws it out a window so it can splash in the castle moat. Why didn’t she just use a rock?
My point with that last reason is that since there’s nothing new, there’s nothing interesting in this book. I wanted to see the rise and fall of the Gelflings. The film world of Thra felt empty because there were only two Gelflings left. In a sense, it was post-apocalyptic. I wanted to read this book to fill that emptiness, and it never happened. The world of Thra is still bleak, barren and empty, even if it does have more trees. With abandonment issues. Are you telling me that this is it after thirty years? This is all that anyone could imagine for poor old Thra? Brian Froud notwithstanding? A couple Stone Age villages, some notes from the website, and one damn lonely tree? I don’t get to see great Gelfling cities, or monuments, or anything else? I just get a derivative plot that just says, “You want to see something cool? Go see the movie.” Lee does nothing to make a voice for himself. He just copies what he thinks Henson would have said, and he misses the mark every time. Its derivative. This is not how you get to first place in anything, except unfortunately, for this contest.
I can’t recommend this book to anyone. I want to give it a full failing grade but, in a weird way, it makes me appreciate Jim Henson’s brilliance even more by showing me how not to accept his ideas. That’s why the best I can give Shadows of the Dark Crystal is a very disappointed…
I just hope they don’t give Lee the rights to work on Labyrinth.
Listening to: Edvard Grieg
Reading: Archeology magazine
Watching: Dark Crystal with a tear in my eye
Playing: Starcraft 2